American Djinn

American Djinn” (short story) published in Overland (Issue 210, Autumn 2013).

“Day 1: Aljazhab.

“The oldest city in the world seems a likely place to find ghosts. The cab plunges into a hot, dusty turmoil of traffic, crowds and distorted calls to midday prayer. After the sensory deficit of the five-hour flight (barely diminished by Raangela and flirting with the Swedish air hostess) the city wakens me with a slap in the face. The smells stream inside: rose tobacco, rank sewage, spicy charred lamb from the street stands. The light has a peculiar quality in this part of the world; it crystallises in the torpid mist of exhaust vapours and sand, making the world at once dream-like and more real.

“The outskirts of Aljazhab conserve that drabness that would have been called modern in the late 1970s, but the beauty of the city is gradually unveiled as we enter. The town is an incongruent palimpsest of materials and styles in which asphalt mixes with glazed mosaic, plaster with stone, stucco with plastic. The advertising signs appear to have been time-tunnelled from another era – and so, it seems, have I. It’s been twelve years since I was last here and the place remains as I remember it, or as I believe I remember it. There is an initial sense of displacement, as though I had just been dumped into an elaborate reconstruction of one of my memories. …”

You and me and the continuum

(Published in Crash Test, 2005)

As night follows day, so will nothingness finally eclipse everything that is, that ever was. Many scenarios have been suggested for the end of all things—futile to enumerate them all. These epics are of an unimaginable scale, an imaginary universe inside our universe, crowded with black holes, heat deaths, whimpers, dark matters, big crunches. One thing everyone seems to agree on. We will all be dead by then. By we I mean you and me. And him and her. And you two as well. And all the animals and the plants, you get the point. But does the wind make a sound if there’s nobody to hear it? Why is the end of the universe of any concern, except maybe as poetic or mythical device for confronting mortality?

Get to the point.

Yes. Hungry. Get over and done.

Hush. You’re always hungry. Listen. The end of the world—our world, for who gives a fuck about the universe, as I was saying before, or was it you?—will have a humble beginning. It is announced on page 42 of the newspaper…

Will you give me a tin after?

Which newspaper?

—are you done pestering me? That is not for you to know. They’re mere details. I continue. Look, there’s even a blurred picture of a portion of galaxy as scanned by the Hubble. The article attempts to explain the phenomenon in layman terms. And—look at him now—his brow undergoes an intriguing transformation as he squints to read this. It folds and swells. It’s as if his whole face wants to implode into itself, a bit like the universe. Except the final dark whimper will be a display of grace and beauty, not to mention great pathos.

Or is it bathos?


His face is definitely ugly. But let us leave the subject of his appearance for a later stage. Maybe, if there is time. In detail, if possible. But you can tell, despite the ugliness, that something has caught his attention. So he is reading the newspaper in the living room, after the morning exercises, in the couch, next to the lamp, with the television on, or maybe off, I forget. Definitely before lunch, though, possibly after the morning walk, before the morning exercise, although most of the time nowadays is spent cleaning, scrubbing the house clean of memories. On the newspaper, the end of the world is not yet labelled as such. But it has struck a ring of alarm in his head, judging by his expression, despite the ugliness. From his head it quickly spreads to his pancreas and bladder, judging etc., as before. More about his pains later—too many and too futile. Some smart journalist, we forget who, has called it ‘The Ghosts of the Milky Way’.

Imagine a bidimensional creature walking in a straight line across the surface of a giant sphere. We know that the creature will eventually return to its point of origin, very much the same way Columbus thought he would reach India by circling the Earth. But the concept of a sphere will be beyond the creature’s comprehension. A similar blah blah blah blah into a ‘hypersphere’ or maybe a sphere of nth dimensions that bleh bleh bleh bleh which means the universe does no extend indefinitely. Last uhmf night scientists at yap yap yap yap yap stark confirmation uhmf umhf series of routinary tests crap crap unusual amounts of radiation leading to a groundbreaking and puzzling discovery. It seems that the light emitted or reflected by every object in the universe will one day travel the whole breadth of this hyper-sphere and return, as it were, in what can be described as a ghostly negative image of the universe. Crap crap stark confirmation blah bleh routine tests bleh bleh yap yap return to haunt us. What is startling is that the universe was formerly thought to be so vast that such a possibility was not seriously considered—the universe would end before umfh umfh crap unbelievable conclusion that the universe is much smaller than previously thought, or that maybe light behaves in a way scientists have not even suspected blah blah blah possibly that the same physical laws do not apply crap crap corners of the cosmos.

You see, he thought the end would be sudden, a flash of pain blinding all things, releasing them. This talk of return and reoccurrence has a bitter ring to it, this unexpected revenge of the universe upon itself.

Hurts. It hurts.

Of course, you fools. He doesn’t want to be reminded.

Are you done? It is night now, doesn’t matter which. In the empty house the screams have again begun. They have never ceased. He sits at the table like this, night after night in the tiny kitchen, the smallest room of the house, amidst the stove, the Mexican mirror, the two rotting chipboard cupboards, sits on the old creaking chair, the same night night after night. He sits thus, with his head covered, like a mummy. A long, tattered scarf has been wrapped—by him, I presume—around the large mass of his head. From a slit in the mask the staring eyes refuse to close.

The eyes, the main organ of knowledge—who said that?

One organ? two?

Don’t interrupt. I continue: In the house the screams have begun, never ceased. He sits thus, head wrapped, hands on the table, eyes vacant. The light outside is never still. It moves through an infinite palette of hues, glows, incessantly changing everything it touches. The screen-door is a comforting barrier between him and it. On the fine mosquito mesh, the accumulated soot of decades grows like grey moss, rendering the outlines hard to make out—small mercy. Not even at night can the world enjoy a rest from this dreadful visibility, this confining presence. While this damned messenger—this moonlight and starlight and man-made glares—meanders gleefully, setting light feet on everything, mocking the living and the dead. As if the presence of things themselves was not enough, we must endure their traces, doublings, reflections, their memories. And the traces of their doublings and the reflections of their traces, and the memories of these.

We get the message. Very Platonic.

You were on the subject of his head.

His head? More about that later. I can’t see any head, only the eyes feeding on the light. And the body down below, suspended from the hook of his neck. On second thoughts, the body is not there at all, really. It is more like a wisp, a hurried afterthought. The below has wasted away while the attics of his brain have grown, the rooms multiplied and filled with the young silence. But there are old rooms, suppressed rooms crammed with old burdens. The mind is the most unreliable of narrators.

So much for the poor wreck.

More. Tell more about the light. About night.

Not much more to tell. We may praise the resilience of photons, hurled onto this undistinguished backyard. They die taking to the grave the memories of their ancient origins. Yes, brave, stubborn things, these ghostly photons.  It could be added that sometimes leaves fall, when—I suppose—autumn comes, which means, logically, empirically—not sure which—that the trees come to life with the arrival of spring, it is presumed. The same leaves returned. And it rains sometimes, but this is not often, not as far as memory can stretch, not for some time anyway by the look of the dead grass and the trees out there bowing down as if to drink from the soil.

Now, though? Is it raining? spring?

That is unclear, for reasons that shall become clear shortly. These include dirty screen-door, bad eyesight, overall lack of interest in the affairs of the outside world. Whatever the case, we are finished with the night, the light and his head.

The screams? Tell about the screams.

Little can be said about the screams. The gagged shrieks, the subterranean supplications have become part of the silence now, a thread in the fabric of the everyday, harmless as the faraway traffic, the dogs barking, the occasional plane. Part of the family now, really.

But even these things are unendurable. Otherwise, explain these desperate attempts at avoidance.

Don’t rush it. It would be easier if you would shut up. And you. And you. Here’s your tin now. Easy, easy.

No tuna?

No, I’ve told why. Eat it. Meanwhile, having no choice, I continue. Wrapping his head in this manner serves to turn his hearing inwards, to the roaring beating of his own blood. It is a soothing sound, like the waves in the sea.That summer, in Jarvis Bay. Not a soul in sight. The log cabin amidst the sand-dunes. The seagulls scavenging the coast, glowing white, as emitting their own light. But enough of these fantasies. A few questions remain about the screams. Do they begin at the same time every night? Which days are the worst? And is it the moon that awakes her in this way? Or is it some internal mechanism, perhaps, some involuntary wrenching of the guts, lungs, throat, liver?

She can’t be hungry again, of that there’s no doubt. Does she love him? And what’s the good of questions without answers?

No more, then. No more about the screams.

No more.

The dark waters licking the grey shore.

Stop! The eyes are moving. The gaze wanders to the mirror now. He stares at his gaze staring at itself staring into itself until his head begins to swim terrifyingly (like that time…). He looks at the door instead, at the night described in the previous paragraph (description abandoned). Entire nights may be spent in this manner. They are kind, peaceful nights, with no other thoughts than those of what is immediately at hand. The gaze slides from the mirror to the door, jumps to the stove, crawls to the mirror, mirror-door, door-mirror, door-mirror-stove, mirror-door-stove, stove-door-stove- mirror.

I resume. We continue: The end will come soon, he hopes, he can only hope. In the meantime, he must keep to the appointed tasks. A hand comes to life on the table. It searches for the end of the scarf, which is secured behind his right ear, two human ears, two human eyes. The scarf unwinds, falling in a lengthening arc. Those who happen to see the face for the first time and are not deterred immediately by its lamentable disrepair, may notice the bulbous nose seemingly attached by accident, as if someone had cast it out in disgust. The size of the nose is no indication of its functionality, for the nose is useless, it can’t even pick up his own farts. It has been stripped of sensory capabilities, and demoted to an appendage of the breathing apparatus. Looking at this nose, you can see why primeval cosmologists imagined humans made of clay, shit and sperm. Let us remain on this face a while longer, since the body is not worthy of discussion. Handfuls of ashen weed perch on a long, wide skull. Alone, in the absence of observers, the face is not ugly. Beauty is a social business. But it is not beautiful either. It is a face with mouth and eyes and other faulty organs of knowledge, human enough to fool the casual passer-by.

When have the screams stopped?

Provided they have stopped.

Tomorrow, extra treat. He feels kind all of the sudden. He will go down there in the morning, yes, extra biscuits, yes.

They are in a tin on the lower shelf, to the left, in the cupboard next to the broken oven.

End of Season

(Published in Amorphik: An Erotic Constellation, RMIT Press 1999).


For some reason she preferred It as a man. She loved the obsidian eyes and the pensive dome of his skull. She loved the ripples of pale muscle stretched over his bones, his ribs, the hollows in his neck and cheeks. She loved the wholesome instrument of his sex nesting in his groin, with its intricate lace of purple veins and its unthinking eye of flesh.

But this It—It scared her sometimes.

As It clambered down from the ship, Calista felt the usual mixture of anticipation and fear. She was a junkie, she realized, addicted to the secretions of her own body, her excitement, her dreamy moods and bouts of anger.

The first thing she noticed was that It was older. Another season had passed.  Already? She could see It was changing, becoming a he again. Probably a couple more days; a week at the most.

She stepped forth. “Welcome home, Duncan,” she greeted, trying to inject some cheerfulness into her voice. “Any action out there?”

Duncan halted in surprise, picking up her presence. It let out a low hiss, a hiss she interpreted as a sigh of disillusion.

“Not much, eh?” she said.

Its multifaceted eye assessed her quickly, yet thoroughly.  The gaze was like a beam of light searching a dark room. Have you been naughty, Calista? Have you played in the labs while I’ve been away? Have you tampered with the machines? But there were new corners in her soul now, secret places Duncan knew nothing of.

As Calista approached to kiss It, the gaze continued to search for something in her expression. What It was seeking was unclear. She only knew that one day the elusive sign would be found, and that her time would then run out.

They fucked. Duncan’s skin was cold after the trips, and his eyes were empty. Every time It returned, It brought a whiff of the Void, the ticktocking of entropy home. Together, on the large low-g bed in the main bedroom, they rode the violent undercurrents and the vertigo of infinity. It was as if Duncan, after weeks of cruising through nothingness, was trying to make up for something, trying to soak up her human warmth in one gigantic intake, to reap it savagely out of her.

It cupped her breast in long purple-furred fingers. Its insides shivered under the vitreous skin. In Its hands, her breast became like a grail, a symbol of Duncan’s longing to be a man again. But now there was something else, something she had never seen before. Duncan looked… scared?

She wrapped her legs around It and mounted It again. As they neared another climax, she pinned It to the bed and stilled Its movements until they both lay motionless. She liked to savor Its member inside of her, feel its pulsations, its rivers gorging with blood. Its sex became a part of her, an extension of her nervous system. Its pleasure was her pleasure, Its fear her fear.

In those moments of stillness, she reached into her own Void that was also Its Void that was also the Void outside enfolding them, immense and uncaring and slowly engineering their deaths and the death of everything behind curtains of icy space and inexorable temporality.

The climax was always a disappointment, the wave of ecstasy too closely followed by a spasm of physical disgust and satiety. Her insides churned as her cells began to assimilate Its jissom. But the queasiness quickly passed. And she was on again.

The welcoming fuck lasted almost two days. Duncan was almost a man by the time they finished. Its skin peeled back and the layers of Its exoeskeleton came off in fragments. They stopped only to drink the food from the machines and clean the mess from Duncan’s transformation. The magnificent sky presided over their ritual–because the Void can be beautiful sometimes. The arc of Annubis D loomed above, slowly climbing across the vault of the ceiling until taking over the whole view. In between orgasms, they became aware of the green surface of the empty planet staring down at them, gently streaked with streams of volcanic red and gas-clouds of cobalt blue. As the station went about its orbit, the sight of Annubis D drifted away and the sky blackened again. One by one, the stars appeared, their tiny flames puncturing the distance. Then Annubis D appeared again and the whole cycle repeated itself.

They lay back, exhausted. The ritual welcomes were getting shorter each time; she could still remember when they used to last for weeks. Duncan’s energies seemed to be ebbing. It was a pity, for Calista felt the opposite: invigorated, younger, strong. It was as if his life was slowly being transferred to her.

“Will you take me with you next time?” she asked him.

He took a long time to answer. His gaze scanned the skies.

“You won’t like it now. There are fewer things to see.”

“But I am alone in here.”

“You have the machines. And the library.”

“They’re not enough.”

“Please, Cal. I am not in the mood for this.”

Things had been different a few seasons before. She’d been allowed to travel with him, helping out with the charting of the trips and the gathering of the sensoria. They cruised across the galaxies, disseminating clouds of exploring machines, tiny artificial eyes that hungrily hunted life and the sights of the universe. They made love and lay back afterwards looking at the grand spectacle of the Void, which had not seemed so threatening back then. Sometimes they asked the computer to reprocess and eroticize the colors of the nebulae and moons, to record the drifting songs of radiation and channel them into their spines. Their fucks acquired a different quality, and Duncan and Calista became like one writhing pyre. They screamed, they hurt, they levitated and crossed myriad forbidden dimensions.

Then the planets began to die down. There was still a lot of activity out there, but the reports were unequivocal: the gradual cooling off was noticeable everywhere, and it was increasing exponentially. She had seen some of the latest pictures, the sterile surfaces of rock, the gray twilights and burning oceans. She had felt the stings of ice through the recordings, the hate in the skies, the crying of the winds and the furious chemical battles on her skin. It was the first sign of the collapse, the vast inward movement of the Void that would culminate with the annihilation of time and identity. The thought seemed to distress Duncan a great deal, and he had asked her not to come with him any more.

One day Calista had decided to stop looking at the recordings. Instead, she visited the library and reworked the old sensoria, combining various tracks and making up her own planets, with large nomad cities of crystal and long-fingered birds sailing across the turbulent ether. Through the control of her electrical potentials, her memories and thoughts Calista could alter the recordings and make new ones. The places gradually disintegrated and became abstract accumulations of sensoria running over her body. Soon there was only one planet, the Calista planet, one desert of blue sands and many small suns dancing across the heavens. In her own small way Calista could rewrite the universe, although she was powerless to avert its end.

“I am going to die one day, my honey. Soon,” Duncan said.

“What do you mean?”

“I will be no more. Not as I am now, anyway. My body will break up into fragments and join the lower strata of being.”

She understood, and the thought filled her with terror.

“Does that mean we won’t be able to fuck any more?”

He smiled and averted his gaze. It was good to see him smile. But when he looked at her again there was that expression on his face, the same one she had seen in It earlier that evening.

After they washed, she followed him into the labs. Or rather, he followed her. The deterioration of his body was becoming apparent. He walked slowly and she frequently had to stop to let him catch up. He stooped, and his eyes regarded her strangely. But she was glad to have Duncan, him again. Her father. Her lover.

They halted at the doors of the lab and she eyed him interrogatively. As a girl, the world of the station had seemed endless and full of wonder, and the labs had been one of her favorite places to play. But her world had narrowed considerably since then, and she had come to regard her place of birth with a kind of superstitious terror.

“We are going to go in,” he said, looking at the metal door. “We will check how our babies are going.”

The door opened soundlessly. They moved through the corridors past sealed doors until they arrived at a spacious and dimly-lit room. At the center of the room there was a row of cylindrical glass containers. Inside the containers, floating in a clear blue liquid, were dozens of human embryos joined to machines by thick umblilical cables.

Duncan leaned over the terminals and scanned the screens of data. He frowned and began to type something on one of the keyboards. As he worked, some of his youthful vitality returned, and the lines of his face seemed to disappear.

“Shit,” he said finally. “This is no good.”

“Our success rate is optimal,” the computer responded. “Specially if we consider the circumstances.”

Duncan glanced at her, then back at the screen.

“They are deformed,” he said. “Dumb and sick children. Get rid of them all. Except maybe for number nine. He seems to be doing okay. Replace the cultures and start again.”

A wheezing sound issued from the equipment surrounding the containers. In unison, needles emerged from the top of the tanks and descended onto the soft shells of the babies’ skulls. The computer pumped in the poison, a thick brown stream that flowed into the tiny bodies and dissolved them.

“Why did you make me?” she asked him as the remains were flushed from the containers.
Duncan kept staring at the monitors.

“You will know in due time,” he said finally.

She didn’t have to wait long. Although their routine continued as normal, she could tell Duncan was agitated, that things were not the same. He was absent for days, working at the lab. He had made some androids to entertain her, but soon she got bored with them. She ended up destroying the stupid things, one by one, cutting their heads off with a laser while they continued to fuck her, then ordering them to form a queue and march into the nearest garbage chute.

“I want to live to the end,” he confessed to her one day, after an unusually tender succession of fucks. “You understand that, don’t you?”

“No,” she said.

“Please try. I am getting old, and it is necessary that you understand. It is your destiny.”

“I can try.”

“It is a waste, you know? All these millions of years of evolution for nothing. When the Big Crunch comes, I will have my revenge. In the name of every sentient being that ever existed. I will go down that fucking hole laughing. You understand?”

“No. Thing are born, they grow and die. No big deal. You taught me that. It’s a hard thing to learn.”

“It is your destiny,” he said, as if not listening.

The end of season arrived one morning not long after that conversation. She disconnected from the library machines and felt it, heavy in her bones, as if the marrow in them had turned to lead. She sought her own image in the polished concave walls of the library room. A part of her understood. A part of her had always known. And when she couldn’t find her reflection on the walls she rushed out through the corridors and searched for it on the windows of the ship and on the metallic surfaces of the machines.

She spotted it on one of the com terminals, a distended face lying on the surface of the inactive screen. She looked at her image for a long time. She looked different. Older? No, that wasn’t it. She looked like…


            She was suddenly very cold. Duncan was on a trip, and for the rest of the afternoon she sat without moving, waiting for him. She knew he had to come soon. She thought of killing herself, but knew the machines would not let her do it. She knew so many things that day. It was all so clear.

He climbed down from the ship. His movements were wooden and mechanical. In his eyes Calista saw boiling volcanoes, cumulus of dead gas. But mostly she saw nothingness, one infinite flat field of no movement, no time and no thought. He was older, much older. His joints were tangled knots and his eyes were sunken in folds of yellow flesh. His legs were bent and carried him unsteadily. His hair was nearly all gone, only two wisps of white left floating on his temples.

Duncan assessed her. But he couldn’t hold her stare for long. He knew.

“Come, Calista,” he said.

Later, in the main bedroom, as she lay on the bed naked, Duncan wheeled in the machine. It was a machine she had never seen before, a floating contraption of thin needles and tiny eyes with an insectoid stomach of polished chrome. He fumbled with the controls, punching a code on a tiny keyboard, then cursed and punched it again. The machine shook and unfolded. Spheres of crystal gyrated in the air, held by tendons of aluminum. The machine came to life and looked at them, appraised them, studied them.  She could feel its stare weighing her bones, measuring her internal liquids, listening to her breathing, her thoughts, the flow of her blood. Duncan extracted two thin tubes from the body of the machine and motioned her to stand up. She hesitated for a moment.

But then she obeyed, knowing that it was better than the alternative, better than resisting, better than being alone or–worse–uncreated. Better than growing old.

Duncan drove the tip of the tube into the base of her skull. Then he did the same thing to himself, probing his neck with infirm fingers until he found the exact spot.

They lay on the bed. His skin was brown and hung in folds. His flesh seemed to be detaching itself from his muscles. She held his penis in her hand and massaged it tenderly, looking for a twitch, the beginning of an erection. It was slow at first, but she orchestrated everything carefully, attacking his centers of pleasure, driving his old body onwards and onwards.

Then she could feel what he was feeling, and she could tell by his eyes that he could feel what she was feeling too. They were locked in a feedback loop. There were no secrets now. He felt his own rugged skin through the touch of her hands. She felt the wet apex of her own labia, magnified and distorted by his lust. She saw the terror, the naked terror of a caged beast glowering in his bloodshot eyes. She felt it and added her own. The juice of carnal electricity became a rapid, then a vicious and deafening waterfall. The intensity of the emotions threatened to overflow their bodies, to burst through their skins–to kill them.

Their confused and fragmented bodies soon approached the climax, the final little death. Duncan’s member was breaking, growing, hurting. The muscles of her sphincter were contracting and expanding like the lips of a starved mouth. Throughout the experience, they could feel the presence of the machine distantly presiding the affair and computing their responses.

The world disappeared. Goodbye, Duncan. She wasn’t sure if she said this or if she merely thought it. It was the same thing now.

He woke up and couldn’t move. It took him a few moments to locate his body, a thing bereft of feeling or movement hanging from his neck. He knew something was amiss. There was pain, a pain he could not associate with any area of his body in particular. It came in waves, then it trickled, then it poured in again.

The view was familiar. It was the Void again, as seen through the dome of the master bedroom. The stars were staring at him. The dying stars.

For a while nothing happened. He tried to remember. But it hurt to do so; it was like touching a sore, bruised membrane. And he could only gather small flashes, a face, a series of landscapes–meaningless fragments.

There was another presence in the room. He was aware of it long before he saw the lean and long-haired figure walk into his field of vision. He couldn’t recognize her at first. And when he did, there was a torrent of memories. It all came back to him. He remembered. And he understood.

“It worked, Calista,” the woman said. It was not a question.

He tried to speak, but could not find his mouth. He felt sick, every cell in his body spinning and disoriented. The woman approached and inspected him closely, maybe wondering if he was alive at all. He saw the face he had seen earlier on the dead screen of the com unit. The woman was himself–herself.

He saw a hand, his own hand, rising of its own accord. The hand was brown and decrepit. He felt the vertigo of the new (old) body weighing him down, writhing inside as if trying to dislodge its new host. The index finger twitched weakly once, and then the hand dropped out of sight.

Duncan was saying something to him, but the meaning of the words slipped through his mental fingers.

“… atoms and flowers… alarm… but… nigh is… like the cumulative… beautiful… strong body… I will… do you… thank you… die… vanity and pride… Adam and Eve… for nothing… future… Fuck them.”

Then Duncan stopped speaking, as if realizing that her words were not getting through. She looked at Calista for what seemed an eternity.

It was good, Calista thought. While it lasted.

Duncan frowned for a moment, and then she smiled. Had she heard him? Calista hoped so.

“Do you want to go now?” she said. She had to repeat the question a few times.

In a little while.

            Duncan nodded.

“I’ll give you twenty minutes.”

She turned to leave, then halted.

“Goodbye,” she added.

See you.

He lied there, thinking of nothing in particular. He felt a warm liquid rush entering his spine and remembered he was still connected to the machine. Some of the pain retreated and the colors became sharper.

Thank you.

As the station continued on its orbit, the first glimpses of Annubis D entered the bottom corner of the dome. The atmosphere was like the halo on the head of a giant angel.

When his time was up, the machine issued a command and another rush of liquid, of a very different nature, flooded his spine.

Calista closed his eyes.